She rides a horse across a stage near the India-Burma (Myanmar) border, blindfolds herself to throw knives at targets several feet away, bashes up bad guys, mud wrestles with a muscular soldier and runs swiftly atop a moving train.The point is not that Kangana Ranaut merely manages to do all this in a film. The point is, she is convincing while executing challenging stunts, and looks good while doing them. So, allow me to borrow her character’s signature line in Rangoon: Bloody hell!
Ranaut is a queen. If there is one takeaway from Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, it is this: that there is something terribly foolish about a film industry which fails to fully tap the vast reserves of female talent at its disposal, and does not centre more action films around this lovely actress… or Priyanka Chopra… or Deepika Padukone… or Anushka Sharma… or any of their other feisty, fleet-footed women colleagues.
When Rangoon has the heroine displaying her physical prowess, it is on solid ground. It falters in other areas, but for the pleasure of seeing a fiery woman skillfully performing feats that have for too long been available only to the men of Hindi cinema, it is worth a watch.
Bhardwaj’s latest takes us back to 1940s India, where an action star screen-named Miss Julia (Ranaut) rules Bombay cinema. Her professional mentor and producer, Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), is a married man who treats her like he would his pet poodle, a pretty creature to be patronised, pampered and protected, loved in the way he thinks love is meant to be given to a woman, but not respected.
We meet these two against the backdrop of multiple wars. Within India, Mahatma Gandhi and like-minded freedom fighters are trying to rid the country of its British colonisers with the weapon of ahimsa. Elsewhere, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose is building his Azad Hind Fauj. A battle is on between these two ideologies to capture the imagination of the people.
Meanwhile, Billimoria becomes beholden to the British for business reasons. Circumstances force Miss Julia to travel to the Indo-Myanmar border where she must headline a series of shows designed to raise the spirits of the ‘British’ troops stationed there. This is where she meets Jamadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor), an Indian like so many others serving in the British army, and employed to keep his own people down.
These then are the two triangles around which Rangoon revolves: Julia, Rusi and Nawab; India, Gandhi and Bose.
On the face of it, this is a setting bubbling with possibilities, and considerable swathes of Rangoon (especially in its second half) do mine that potential. Ranaut delivers a seemingly effortless, chameleon-like performance as a woman who is by turns fragile and fierce, hurting yet invulnerable, a child who grows into a woman during the course of the film. The actress and the character she plays here, possess a body that is as intriguing as her mind: she appears delicate, yet explodes with energy and athleticism when life demands it of her.
Thankfully, Rusi is not the suave, likeable, easygoing flirt Khan has played in too many films now. He is an amoral yet charming creature, a man of grays and internal conflicts that appear to surprise him as he discovers them. Khan is as assured here as he has been in his best work so far (read: Hum Tum, Ek Hasina Thi and Omkara), making Rusi hard to like yet impossible to hate in a way that only he can. Rangoon is a sorely needed reminder that this Khan is one of the finest actors among all the heroes in Hindi cinema right now, the one whose versatility has been least explored.
However, for the film to be compelling all the way, it needed us to root for Julia and Nawab, not Julia and Rusi, but the chemistry between Ranaut and Kapoor is strangely lukewarm. And Kapoor deadpans his way through the role, which is inexplicable considering that he is emerging here from a career best performance in Haider (2014) helmed by the same director.
Chemistry is not a factor of good acting alone, it emerges from great writing. Therein lies the problem with Rangoon. Unlike the immersive writing of Haider, Rangoon seems detached from its proceedings, narrating them like an observer rather than a participant.
The story of Rangoon is credited to Matthew Robbins who earlier wrote 2011’s Saat Khoon Maaf which Bharadwaj directed. The screenplay has been jointly written by Robbins, Sabrina Dhawan (who wrote Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding) and Bhardwaj himself. Perhaps Bhardwaj should have known better than to team up once again with Robbins, considering that despite all the atmospherics and intrigue he managed to summon up in Saat Khoon Maaf, that too ended up feeling like an outsider’s view of the world it sought to create.
This is one reason why Rangoon does not come alive on screen. The film also takes too long to lift off. The best of Rangoon is packed into its second half, but it is once again pulled down by an overly dramatised, ham-fisted ending that is trying too hard to be emotionally wrenching in its nationalist fervour and imposing, but ends up being amusingly trite instead.
That said, the positives of Rangoon call out. Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography is imaginative and grand, and despite the occasional weak spot in the special effects, the film looks rich. Dolly Ahluwalia’s costumes, the hairdos and styling are all exemplary. The combination of Ranaut’s verve, the retro choreography by Farah Khan and Sudesh Adhana, well-written songs blending perfectly into the narrative and lavish set pieces, make Rangoon’s many song-and-dance numbers memorable.
The music is by Bhardwaj, the lyrics by Gulzar. Now that’s a team worth repeating. They roll out an entire spectrum of moods for Rangoon, ranging from the ruminative romantic ballad Yeh ishq hai to the frothy mischief of Mere miya gaye England. When the same film gives you Arijit Singh singing “Sufi ke zulfe ki / Lau utthi Allah hu / Jalte hi rehna hai / Baaki na main na tu” and “Mere miya gaye England / Baja ke band / Na jaane kaha karenge land / Ki Hitler chauke na”, in Rekha Bhardwaj’s voice, you almost will it to extend that quality into every other department.
Early news about Rangoon indicated that it was based on the true story of Fearless Nadia, the Australia-born actress who lived from 1908-1996 and ruled the Hindi film industry as an action star in her time. As is often the case with such Bollywood ventures, the rumours (very likely initiated by the film’s own team to generate a buzz around the project) have given way to an officially stated position that Rangoon has nothing to do with Nadia.
The truth is, Julia is probably inspired by Nadia, but this is not a biopic. This is a love triangle set in a time when the people of India were grappling with the opposing ideologies of the Mahatma and Netaji. The Bhardwaj who made Maqbool, Omkara and Haider is a man perfectly suited to a film like Rangoon. Sadly, without the writing brilliance of the director’s Shakespeare trilogy, Rangoon gets many things right, but fails to come together as an involving, engaging whole.
Still, Ranaut is remarkable playing the sort of character no Hindi film leading lady has been given for decades now. A big bow to Bhardwaj for that, and to the actress for choosing a path advocated by Gandhi, being the change she clearly wants to see in Hindi cinema. This action queen deserved a more vibrant film though.